According to sociocultural theories, child development differentiates in different social and cultural contexts. Culturally- specific beliefs and practices in each sociocultural context influence children’s development in its unique way (Berk, 2009). This essay sets out to examine how Chinese children’s developments in academic knowledge and temperament are impacted by culturally-specific child rearing in Chinese society. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory and Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory are applied to analyse the general practices, the assumptions, the beliefs and the upheld values of child rearing in China.
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Definitions of Culture and Society
Culture and society may mean different things to different people. For instance, society is defined as “an association with one’s fellowsâ€¦, the system of customs and organization adopted by a body of individualsâ€¦, the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered communityâ€¦” in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (2002, p.2906, cited in New Zealand Tertiary College[NZTC], 2010). In this essay, society refers to the aggregate of people living together. Therefore, the Chinese society means the populations living in China. Culture in this essay refers to “the distinctive customs, achievements, products, outlook, etc., of a societyâ€¦”as defined in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (2002, p. 575, cited in NZTC, 2010). By culturally-specific child rearing practices within this essay, it means the consistent and similar child rearing practices adopted by Chinese, such as feeding, toilet training, sleeping arrangement, and discipline.
Academic Knowledge and Temperament of shyness
Generally speaking, there are three broad domains of child development: physical, emotional and social, and cognitive (Berk, 2009). This essay will focus on studying the influence of culturally-specific child rearing on Chinese children’s academic learning (cognitive development) and temperament (emotional and social development).
In a study of Hong Kong-Chinese preschool children’s literacy skills, it is advised that: 75% of five years olds can write their names in Chinese correctly; more than 50% of four years olds can write appropriately using strokes and stroke patterns (the two smallest units in Chinese writings); 75% of three years olds can differentiate drawing from writing, and 20% can write appropriately (Chan & Louies, 1992, cited in Chan, Juan, & Foon, 2008). In international cross-cultural studies of reading, mathematics, and science achievement, children from all the participating Chinese cities, namely Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao, are rated top performers, way above the international level (Programme for International Student Assessment, 2003, 2006, cited in Berk, 2009).
Despite relevant high academic achievement, most cross-cultural studies define Chinese children as shy and withdrawn (Chen, Rubin, & Li, 1995, Chen et al., 1998, cited in Berk, 2009). In a cross-cultural study of Chinese and Canadian two years olds, Chinese toddlers were found significantly more inhibited than Canadian ones (Chen et al., 1998, cited in Papalia, Olds, & Feldman, 2004).
Child rearing practices in the Ecological Systems
According to Bronfenbrenner, the environment influencing child development can be classified into five different layers from the innermost to the outermost levels: microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, macrosystem, and the chronosystem. The microsystem refers to children’s immediate environment, such as home and early childhood centre .The mesosystem is the interaction between the microsystems. Other social settings outside the immediate environment that affect children’s development make up the exosystem. The macrosystem includes “cultural values, laws, customs, and resources”. Chronosystem means the whole environment system is an ever-changing system. Any changes in life events imposed by others or by the children as they grow up can modify the systems (Berk, 2009). The child rearing practices in the respective systems that contribute to children’s development of relevant high academic performance and temperament of shyness are analysed as below.
At home (microsystem), the childcare is mostly carried out by mothers. Chinese mothers are found to indulge their infants and toddlers in terms of feeding, sleeping (Roopnariane & Carter, 1992, cited in Yunus, 2005). They always keep their children close to them and favour physical contact over verbal stimulation. The mothers start toilet training the babies when they are six months and most of they are successfully trained by one and half years old (Whiting & Whiting, 1975, Sung, 1995, Lee, 1999, cited in Yunus, 2005). It is suggested by Kelly and Tseng (2000, cited in Yunus, 2005) that the over-indulgence and early rigid toilet training are positively related to Chinese children’s slow physical and motor development. The father’s role is to discipline children. The discipline is taught by induction: explicit statement of what exactly the child is expected to do and why. If the child doesn’t do as told, some parents might resort to shaming the misbehaved child, retrieving their love or even physical punishment (Jose, Huntsinger, Huntsinger, & Liaw, 2000, Schwalb, Nakazawa, Yamamoto, & Hyun, 2004, cited in Berk, 2009).
The parenting style is less warm and more controlling (Dehart, Sroufe, & Cooper, 2004; Berk, 2009). Yunus(2005) suggests that Chinese parenting is more authoritarian compared to Western parenting. The communication pattern is one way: parent to child. At most times, children listen attentively to what parents say. Children are not to openly express opinions on certain issues (Chiew, 2000, Zhao, 2002, Akhtar, 1998, cited in Yunus, 2005), or to express strong emotions ever since they are babies (Berk, 2009). It is found that parents do little to help their children release emotions, encouraging them to hide the emotions (Chan, Bowes, & Wyver, 2009).. Children are taught the emotion-feeling rules and display rules justified with moral reasons (Wang, 2006, cited in Chan et al., 2009). Being reared in an authoritarian way and taught the emotion display rules (hiding the emotions), Chinese children are inclined to be shy and withdrawn (Chan et. al., 2009).
In terms of parents’ attitudes towards play, almost all Chinese parents discourage their children to play at home. They often tell their children “Don’t think of playing all the time. Learning is most important.” Believing in the importance of academic learning, parents begin to teach their children to count and write since they are three in most cases. Therefore, for home activities as well as mother-child interaction, it would be mother teaching the child to write, count, and appropriate social behaviour through fable storytelling, especially respecting the elders (Pearson & Rao, 2003). A recent survey shows that before children attend primary school, 88.6% parents teach their children reading, recognising Chinese characters and counting; 28.2% parents teach their children foreign language, and 20.3% parents tutor their children the courses for primary school (Wang, Wang, & Chen, 2010). A lot of demonstration, time to practice academic skills, and explicit values of academic skills, facilitate Chinese children’s development in academic knowledge (Chan et al., 2008; Gershoff & Aber, 2006, cited in Berk, 2009).
Most Chinese parents send their children to kindergartens when they are three. The children will then spend eight to nine hours daily in the kindergarten (Liu & Elicker, 2005). The interaction between Chinese parents and teachers (mesosystem) is limited (Schwartz, 2003, cited in Yunus, 2005). While parents do concern about their children’s learning, they assign the teaching responsibility to teachers, relying on the teachers for children’s learning in the kindergarten (Morrow, 1999, cited in Yunus, 2005). In a survey of parents’ expectations of kindergarten teaching, parents express their main aspirations for their children as possessing academic skills and filial piety (88%) (Xinyuan Kindergarten, 2010). Parents’ highly valuing academic skills urges teachers to put a lot of efforts in academic teaching to meet up their expectations.
In China the child rearing is shared among the extended family (exosystem), especially grandparents take up a large role in raising the children. The filial piety and the whole system of family are greatly valued among the extended family (Yunus, 2005). Children are taught the importance of respecting the elders and the obligation to contribute to family’s honour by behaving properly (Zhao, 2002, cited in Yunus, 2005). When children are shy, reticent, quiet, they are considered by the extended family to be well-behaved and having sense of understanding (Hart, Yang, Nelson, Robinson, Olsen, Nelson, Porter, Jin, Olsen, Wu, 2000). Children are constantly reminded that their first means to fulfil family responsibility and obligation is through education (Yunus, 2005). The expectation of academic achievement and honouring family reputations placed by the extended family put pressure on parents’ child education and children’s motivation towards high academic performance.
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In macrosystem, the Chinese families are greatly influenced by Confucian philosophy stressing the importance of academic achievement and social harmony. The following assumptions are deeply rooted in Chinese child rearing practices: children inherently penchant for the good; proper training during early childhood helps to build children’s positive character; formal education and high standards of academic achievement is important for children’s development (Yunus, 2005). It is the custom that parents are to provide an environment conducive to academic achievement, while children are to work hard for high performance in academics. Besides, Chinese value the doctrine of mean (Zhong Yong Zhi Dao in Mandarin), not being extreme. Inhibited, sensitive, and socially restrained behaviour are highly valued in the Chinese culture (Ho, 1986, Lao, 1996, Chen, in press, cited in Hart et al., 2000). It is partly because they prioritise the importance of maintaining social order and interpersonal harmony in the society at large in the collectivism society (Hart e al., 2000).
The one-child policy in China also affects children’s development to a great extent. Having only one child, a lot of parents do their best to start their children’s education at the possible earliest age to make their children more advantaged within the intensely competitive Chinese educational system (Brassard & Chen, 2005). Government also devote the increased resources to the care and education of children to support the families and to secure the country’s future generation’s success in the highly competitive economy (Dehart et al., 2004).
In the chronosystem, while shyness is traditionally valued by parents and the society, recent researches indicate a change of people’s attitudes towards children’s shyness. With the rapid growth of the economy, assertiveness and sociability started to be viewed as desirable for success in the society (Chen, Wang, & DeSouza, 2006, Yu, 2002, cited in Berk, 2009). It is reasonable to assume, with parents’ values swift, their way of interacting with children will change accordingly in the future, influencing children’s development in a different way.
Figure 1. Chinese child rearing practices contributing to academic learning and shyness in the Ecological Systems.
Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory
According to Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory, each culture provides its own context and different goals for children (Drewery & Bird, 2004). Vygotsky proposes that cultural influence children through cultural tools, which refer to the knowledge of cultural practices that help children fit into their cultural context, including language, rituals, ceremonies and social values and beliefs that guide people’s thinking (Crain, 2000, cited in NZTC, 2010). Vygotsky further suggests that the values, beliefs, customs and desirable skills of a culture are transmitted to the next generation through social interaction, in particular through scaffolding by adults and more-advanced peers (Rowe & Wertsch, 2002, cited in Berk, 2009).
In china, the selected goals for children are high academic achievement and maintaining social harmony. There goals are valued by the Confucian philosophy which still deeply influences the Chinese parents (Hart et al., 2000). Parents encourage children to develop these culturally valued skills at an early age of three. Children strive for these desirable skills to fit into the sociocultural context. Social value and belief of early formal education, cultural practices upholding the academics and proper social behaviour of respecting elders and shyness add to the Chinese cultural tools. All these cultural tools support the daily child rearing practices, educational activities, the routines, the child-adult interactions as analysed in the ecological systems (Crain, 2000, cited in NZTC, 2010). Through interaction with their parents, extended family, children learn, apply and internalize these cultural values and tools of academic learning and temperament of shyness.
Different sociocultural environment places different goals and expectations on children. When the sociocultural context changes over time, certain values and practices might change. Generally speaking, Chinese children are expected to fulfill the goals and expectations of academic achievement and maintaining social harmony placed by their parents, extended family, and society. The values, beliefs upheld by the society affect the parents and extended family, and the extended family and parents influence children’s development in academic learning and temperament through specific child rearing practices emphasising these skills.
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